A review of "La Danse," a documentary by Frederick Wiseman that captures the fleeting beauty of dance in dozens of miniature portraits. Set at the Paris Opera Ballet.

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I remember, long ago, a dance teacher talking about jumping. “Just go up there and stay there,” she would say, to those trying to overthink the movement. “That’s all.” Documentarian Frederick Wiseman, in “La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet,” captures the fleeting beauty of ballet in dozens of miniature portraits, each quietly soaring. This movie just goes up there and stays there, and it’s magical.

Wiseman, who’s been making unique portraits of institutions for more than 40 years (beginning with “Titicut Follies,” set in a prison for the criminally insane, in 1967), understands the ephemeral nature of ballet — how every performance, with its electric connections between dancers and music, is different, and how we watch holding on to the moment, knowing it will never recur quite this way again.

“La Danse” follows his long-established structure: no title cards, no talking-head interviews, no added music. The dancers, choreographers, administrators and backstage workers are not identified by name; nor are the dances (though ballet buffs will recognize a few). And from this careful assemblage comes gold. In the vast Paris Opera House, we visit the watery underground tunnels where a Phantom might indeed lurk; the workrooms where seamstresses assemble tutus, layered like lacy souffles; the meeting rooms where donor luncheons are planned; the makeup mirrors; the hallways; the cafeteria (yes, they eat here); and of course the studios.

Though we see a few dances both in rehearsal and performance, the real throughline in “La Danse” is the passage of time and a dancer’s ever-ticking clock. Early on, we see a veteran ballerina laughingly note that “I’m not 25 anymore”; later, a glowing and very young dancer is thrilled to hear that she is “on the right track.” Two company managers discuss the trials of an aging body, noting that “a dancer is both the racehorse and its jockey, the race car and its driver.”

The dance in “La Danse” is glorious, as are the asides: A choreographer tells a dancer, “Jumping is not as important as launching something”; another notes that an arabesque “is only a passage” to be moved through, not something by itself. You want the dancer to hold that arabesque, so we can see it, but such is not the nature of the dance; it must, and it will, move on.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com